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Going out on top

Some operators close their restaurants due to extenuating circumstances—rent increases, bad location, low traffic, etc. Others are forced to close due to financial burdens or scandals, as was the case for Tavernita, a Chicago concept in Mercadito Hospitality’s portfolio that shut its doors Labor Day weekend amidst a supposed $75,000 tax debt. The lucky few, though, get to go out on their own terms, deciding how and when to close up shop. That’s the case for another Chicago concept, Hot Doug’s, a small counter service-only spot that celebrity chef Graham Elliot refers to as an “institution” in the foreward of Hot Doug’s: The Book. Doug Sohn, owner of the self-proclaimed encased-meat emporium, is hanging up his apron (actually, it’s a t-shirt) this October after 14 years behind the counter.

“It’s a luxury to close when you can, not because you have to,” says Sohn, who is known for manning the small yet high-traffic, always-busy counter that slings hundreds of sausages, ranging from $2.50 for the basic dog to $10 for specialty-game wieners, every Monday through Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. For him, ending Hot Doug’s tenure was a “gut feeling;” at the end of each year, he evaluated whether he had another year in him. This time, the answer was no. Now, he’s “ready to do something else,” though he’s not sure what yet. One thing he does know at this point—while he won’t say never, he’s not planning to sell the concept.

While plenty of offers have come in to buy Hot Doug’s, he’s holding on to his name and slogans (though he does plan to sell off the store’s equipment). And for other operators who also want to bow out gracefully, he has one suggestion. “Don’t listen to others; do what you think is right.” Many business owners have tried to persuade him to franchise, sell or have just given their two-cents into what he should do.  But he cautions to “never [sell] just for the money … the strategy is to not act too rashly, but decide what’s best for you.”

Since October spells the end for Hot Doug’s, Sohn made sure to give his loyal fan base—which extends nationally, thanks to attention from TV appearances such as Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations on the Travel Channel—ample warning of the shutdown. The May announcement of the closing hit the internet like a crashing wave, sending people to line up for the sausages even more than before. While it wasn’t unheard of to see the line wrapped around the building with hour or two wait for the elk dog and duck-fat fries on the weekend pre-announcement, the get-it-while-you-still-can mentality has taken over. Weekday sausage seekers can expect to wait in line about an hour and a half, but the weekend line has topped out at four hours, says Sohn. Yet despite the longer line, it’s business as usual for Sohn and his team for another month. He’s still working the counter, “making people laugh and providing an experience." It’s interacting with these customers that Sohn says he’ll miss the most.

So what’s the first thing Sohn will do upon closing his hotdog shop? “Go out to lunch; lots of chefs in the city owe me a meal.”

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